Books & Literature

Book Review: Hitler’s Horses, by Arthur Brand, translated by Jane Hedley-Prȏle

TRUE CRIME: How the Indiana Jones of the art world took on neo-Nazis and the criminal underworld to solve the mystery of Hitler’s favourite statue.

A fascinating true crime tale, reaching back to the Nazi-era.
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*Feature image credit: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P054320 / Weinrother, Carl / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Arthur Brand has been described as the world’s greatest art detective and this narrative strikes one as more suited to a mystery/espionage novel than a true story of art theft. The author does not quite have the touch of a Le Carré but as the hunt intensifies, so does the pace of the story.

The massive bronze horses held pride of place outside Hitler’s chancellery. They were made by Josef Thorak, one of only two, official Third Reich sculptors. He was well known for the heroic scale of his works—up to 20 metres—which reflected Hitler’s belief in the ‘Thousand-Year Reich’ which Nazism would establish. It was believed the statues had been destroyed when Berlin was bombed into rubble at the end of WWII. Brand spotted a crucial scene in a film predating the end of the war which established they had been moved in 1943, when Berlin first began to be bombed by the Allies. 

It was not until 1950 that the bronze horses were definitely seen again, in a Soviet army camp in what was now, post war, communist East Germany. Although further information on the horses was published in the late 1980s, in the upheaval of German reunification they were again lost. Official Russian sources said the horses had been destroyed owing to the repugnance felt about Nazi-era art. But Brand was hearing rumours about die-hard Nazi sympathisers and neo-Nazis who had ‘rescued’ the horses and other Nazi art. At this stage, Brand, working separately but on the same trail as Berlin police detective, René Allonge, had to find the horses.

It began with a call to an elderly female art dealer from a shady car salesman—was she interested in Hitler’s Horses? Brand invented “Moss”, a fictional Texan millionaire with very deep pockets and the further advantage of being a long way away from Germany, to entice the prospective seller. The author describes the delicate negotiations, which continued for months, with a sure hand. We feel the tension in phone calls, emails and especially of meetings, which are recorded on a buttonhole camera and audio device. 

Brand and Allonge were now working together and with the prospective seller continually postponing any viewing of the horses, it was decided to raid properties of interest. Although his colleagues went on the raids, the author was unable to be part of the action as he would be a key witness and we can feel both his disappointment at not being there and his elation when Hitler’s bronze horses, which had supposedly been destroyed, were found. 

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Penguin Random House
Released: 16 February 2021                   
RRP: $35.00

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